The Root of Bitterness

Quick Notes for Monday, 12 January 2015

Hebrews 12:12-15 says,

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.

I’ve always picked up from sermons, or just assumed, that the “root of bitterness” mentioned here refers to the harboring of bitterness in your heart against someone. Taken in that sense, it would be an exhortation to cultivate a gracious and forgiving attitude. A fine thing to do and an exhortation we should hear, but I don’t think that’s what “root of bitterness” means.

rootsOne thing 21st century English readers easily forget is that two thousand years ago, most people couldn’t read, lots who could were in any case unable to afford books, and there was as yet no fully collected New Testament canon. We today can read, and we all have our own Bibles bound with all 66 books under one cover. This means that the bulk of our exposure to the Bible comes to us as isolated individuals. We read it by ourselves, privately, and consequently tend to read the epistles as personal letters to us. But the fact is, the epistles were originally received by congregations, and read to the whole assembly, and for most of the history of the church that was how Christians were exposed to the Bible: Not as individuals, but as a body. It was read to them.

This situation is aggravated by the fact that the barbarian English tongue has no second-person plural pronoun (the more sophisticated American Southeast does I suppose, y’all). In other words, in the epistles, almost every time it says “you,” the you is actually plural, and the commands are in the plural. But we tend to read “you” as “me personally.” It’s a bit of a change of perspective when you recognize that “you” is an address to a gathered church: It’s, “You all, as a body.”

That was a roundabout way of saying, “root of bitterness” does not refer to an attitude within the individual reader, but to a person in the congregation who would be a corrupting influence. See to it that there is no one in your midst who is a “root of bitterness” causing trouble and defiling many.

More importantly though, this interpretation is confirmed when we realize that “root of bitterness” is a term plucked out from Deuteronomy 29:18-19 (the ESV actually puts “root of bitterness” in quotes). That passage says this:

Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of the nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.

caution-1This is why a “root of bitterness” in the church can “cause trouble and by it [him/her, that is] many become defiled.” A root of bitterness is not an attitude but a person who thinks he can get away with sin, or a false teacher leading people astray into sin. It’s someone who, if they continue in sin unchecked by the church, can bring judgment on that church. It could lead to the “sweeping away of moist and dry alike,” something like what the church of Thyatira is warned about in Revelation 2:18ff, who “tolerates that woman Jezebel.”

Watching out for a root of bitterness is not first of all a call for a gracious spirit. It’s a call for church discipline and accountability within the body. It’s also a warning to those in the church: Are you a bitter root, bearing poisonous fruit?


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